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The Empty Ocean

The Empty Ocean

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The Empty Ocean

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Mar 19, 2013


In The Empty Ocean, acclaimed author and artist Richard Ellis tells the story of our continued plunder of life in the sea and weighs the chances for its recovery. Through fascinating portraits of a wide array of creatures, he introduces us to the many forms of sea life that humans have fished, hunted, and collected over the centuries, from charismatic whales and dolphins to the lowly menhaden, from sea turtles to cod, tuna, and coral.
Rich in history, anecdote, and surprising fact, Richard Ellis’s descriptions bring to life the natural history of the various species, the threats they face, and the losses they have suffered. Killing has occurred on a truly stunning scale, with extinction all too often the result, leaving a once-teeming ocean greatly depleted. But the author also finds instances of hope and resilience, of species that have begun to make remarkable comebacks when given the opportunity.
Written with passion and grace, and illustrated with Richard Ellis’s own drawings, The Empty Ocean brings to a wide audience a compelling view of the damage we have caused to life in the sea and what we can do about it. "
Mar 19, 2013

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The Empty Ocean - Richard Ellis

The Empty Ocean

Plundering The World's Marine Life

Richard Ellis

A Shearwater Book

Published by Island Press

Copyright © 2003 Richard Ellis

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright

Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form

or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher:

Island Press, 1718 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 300,

Washington, DC 20009.

SHEARWATER BOOKS is a trademark of The Center for Resource Economics.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ellis, Richard, 1938–

The empty ocean / Richard Ellis

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.


1. Marine animals. 2. Endangered species. I. Title.

QL 121.E5794 2003


British Cataloguing-in-Publication Data available

Book design by Joyce C. Weston

Printed on recycled, acid-free paper

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page
























Few modern ecological studies take into account the former natural abundances of large marine vertebrates. There are dozens of places in the Caribbean named after large sea turtles whose adult populations now number in the tens of thousands instead of the tens of millions of a few centuries ago. Whales, manatees, dugongs, sea cows, monk seals, crocodiles, codfish, jewfish, swordfish, sharks, and rays are other large marine vertebrates that are now functionally or entirely extinct in most coastal ecosystems. Place names for oysters, pearls, and conches conjure up other ecological ghosts of marine invertebrates that were once so abundant as to pose hazards to navigation, but are witnessed now only by massive garbage heaps of empty shells.

—Jeremy Jackson et al., Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems, 2001


While immersed in other projects and adventures, I kept bumping into stories of overfishing, overhunting, and other depredations that ocean life has been subjected to. As I read the voluminous literature and listened to the cries of despair, I realized I had found the subject for my next book, one that seemed as necessary as a fire alarm in a burning building. Through carelessness, ignorance, greed, or just plain stupidity, we have squandered our precious marine heritage—in some cases beyond salvation. I have written about all sorts of things that live in the sea, from sperm whales to great white sharks, from giant squid to deep-sea viperfish, but never before have I felt such a pressing need to get the information out. Some of the situations are already hopeless: millions of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, and sea otters have been killed in the name of fashion or commerce. We will never again see a living great auk or Steller’s sea cow; the barndoor skate is history. But this is only the beginning of the end, as it were. Poisoning, overfishing, and extinctions are on the increase around the world. If we are not to repeat the history we did not understand, perhaps this warning will alert the fire department, and maybe—just maybe—we will be able to avoid greater calamities in the future.

I began this book many years ago, when I thought the world needed a book about the Atlantic Ocean. Among the subjects I addressed was the history of the cod fishery, and I did a lot of research on this significant episode in American and Canadian maritime and economic history. The Atlantic Ocean never got written (by me, anyway), but pieces of it were eventually incorporated into various other books. For instance, the part about Atlantic sea monsters became the basis of my 1994 study Monsters of the Sea, and the chapter on the giant squid in that book led to my writing an entire book about Architeuthis, the huge squid that, up to the time The Search for the Giant Squid was published (1998), had never been seen alive by a human being. (It now has—at least in larval form—an event that could conceivably lead to yet another book.) My history of the Atlantic cod fishery has been recycled and updated, and it appears in this book as the paradigm of careless overfishing.

I began The Atlantic Ocean long before Mark Kurlansky published Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and I’m glad that worked out the way it did. His book, published in 1997, was particularly helpful to me. Other books that I found useful are mentioned here in the text or listed in the bibliography. Many people contributed to my work in this book, advertently or not, including Paolo Guglielmi of the World Wildlife Fund; Carl Safina of the National Audubon Society; Ole Lindquist of Iceland; Carl Luer of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida; Alida Bundy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Heather Hall, Amanda Vincent, and Sara Lourie of Project Seahorse at McGill University in Canada; Paul Bowser and James Casey of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine; John Richardson of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald; George Balazs of the Honolulu Laboratory of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (National Marine Fisheries Service); Peter Harrison and Shirley Metz of Zegrahm Expeditions; Daryl Domning of Howard University; James Porter of the University of Georgia; Andrei Suntsov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow; and Andrew Baker, Peter Benchley, Briton Busch, James Carlton, Phil Clapham, Malcolm Clarke, Osha Gray Davidson, Rodney Fox, Errol Fuller, Burney LeBoeuf, John McCosker, Ed Melvin, Michael Novacek, Seiji Ohsumi, Hideo Omura, Roger Payne, Bill Perrin, Karen Pryor, Rhys Richards, Joan Rose, Dick Russell, Victor Scheffer, Leighton Taylor, Carl Trocki, Craig Van Note, E. O. Wilson, Bernd and Melany Würsig, and Charles Yentsch.

From 1980 to 1990 I served as a member of the American delegation to the International Whaling Commission, the organization chartered in 1949 to oversee the whaling industry, but which, in recent years, has served as the battlefield for worldwide whale conservation. During that ten-year period, I came to know many of the players on this international stage and, through them, expanded my knowledge of the history and politics of whaling. To most of us—indeed, to most of the world—the passage of the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 signaled the end of whale-killing for profit. I thus resigned from my position in 1990, believing that the anti-whaling forces had won the war. But as with most wars, it wasn’t over when the shooting stopped; as of this writing, the Japanese and the Norwegians are still whaling, under various loopholes in the quota system. Although my remaining on the delegation probably wouldn’t have changed anything, I now believe I should have stayed the course, if for no other reason than to watch what was happening from within.

I participated in countless save the whale campaigns, including some in which I stood on street corners in Manhattan soliciting signatures on anti-whaling petitions, which we planned to bring to the Japanese and Soviet embassies, and others in which I drew the whales for consciousness-raising bumper stickers, T-shirts, and newspaper ads. I painted portraits of the ten species of great whales, and these were published in a 1975 issue of Audubon magazine. I am not a field researcher—I classify myself as a library or Internet researcher—but I have been a student of marine life for four decades, and in my travels I have seen in the wild many of the species discussed in this book. I have also visited fishing villages in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, California, Hawaii, Newfoundland, and Quebec. For nearly twenty years, I have lectured on cruises sponsored by organizations such as Sven Lindblad’s Special Expeditions, the American Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Tours, and the Explorers’ Club Travel Program. To the people who put me on these ships, I am eternally grateful: Penelope Bodry-Sanders, Liz De Gaetano, Pam Fingleton, Julie Kohn, and Alicia Stevens. Through their good offices I traveled to many of the places mentioned in this book: Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land, Bering Island, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, the North Pole, the Pribilof and Diomede Islands, South Georgia Island, the Falkland Islands, the Antarctic, Baja California, the Great Barrier Reef, Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island, Indonesia, Iceland, and Alaska. On my own, I visited South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Bermuda, Newfoundland, Nantucket, the Azores, Patagonia, Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Iceland, and the Galápagos Islands, all places that appear somewhere in the history of whaling, sealing, fishing, or all three. Almost everywhere, I found helpful and cooperative people, even when they realized I would be writing about the sometimes awful things they had done in the name of commerce.

This book was in the works for some time, and many people I consulted during the process died before the book was published. They were friends as well as colleagues and advisors, and I will miss them: Bill Dawbin, Ricardo Mandojana, Masaharu Nishiwaki, Ken Norris, and Bill Schevill.

Throughout the long, difficult process that miraculously results in a book, I relied heavily on those who make up my support system. As a newly minted research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, I am grateful to just about everyone there but especially the library staff, who abetted me in my endless searches for obscure references. I can’t thank the Internet, but I’d like to anyway. My trusty agent, Carl Brandt, watched me sink into the bottomless Atlantic and come up sputtering something about emptying the ocean, and he found Jonathan Cobb and Todd Baldwin of Island Press, who were willing to publish this book. I believe this book would have been vastly inferior without Jonathan Cobb’s incredible attention to detail and his organic understanding of what makes a narrative flow. He once told me that he sees a manuscript as music; I wrote the score, but he conducted the orchestra.

Once again, Stephanie has been there to add new meaning to the words support, patience, and loyalty.




Once upon a time, gray whales fed in the cold waters off Iceland and Greenland and migrated south—perhaps to the Bay of Biscay or even to the English Channel—to breed. Morphologically, they were the same whales (now known as Eschrichtius robustus) as the better-known California gray whales, which confine their migratory meanderings to the Pacific coast of North America, annually swimming south from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back again. No living person has seen an Atlantic gray whale, but we do have suggestive historical and conclusive paleontological evidence to confirm the existence of the creature that whale-hunters used to call devil-fish.

The earliest mention to date of what may have been the Atlantic gray whale can be found in an Icelandic bestiary from about A.D. 1200 that describes some different kinds of whales, but not accurately enough for modern cetologists to identify them as to species. The Konnungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror), a thirteenth-century document written in Norwegian probably as a set of instructions for a king’s son, lists twenty-one sea creatures, some of which can be referred to as living whales, dolphins, and pinnipeds, and some of which—mermaids and mermen, for example—are clearly mythological. Although it is not clearly identified, the gray whale is thought to be one of the whales mentioned.

A seventeenth-century Icelandic work by Jon Gudmundsson (quoted in Hermannson 1924) contains a list of various whales that might be found in nearby waters, and one of these is the Sandlaegja, which has been translated as sand-lier. The description—translated from Icelandic—is as follows: "Sandlaegja. . . . Good eating. It has whiter baleen plates, which project from the upper jaw instead of teeth, as in all other baleen whales.... It is very tenacious of life and can come to land to lie as a seal to rest the whole day.... Sandlaegja, reaches 30 ells [an ell is about thirty inches] , has baleen and is well edible. Although other whale species share some of these attributes, many of these characteristics, such as the whiter baleen plates" and the sand-lying behavior that gave it its name, would appear to refer to the Atlantic gray whale, which does indeed have short, whitish baleen and a habit of entering very shallow water.

The historical literature I’ve mentioned so far is inconclusive, but we know from other sources that before the modern era gray whales swam in the Atlantic Ocean. Fossil remains of a species similar to—perhaps identical with—the Pacific gray whale have been found in western Europe (Sweden, England, and the Netherlands) and on the eastern coast of North America from New Jersey to South Carolina. The Atlantic gray whale fed in cold northern waters (perhaps off Iceland and Greenland) and then moved south to breed and calve. (There also used to be a sizable western Pacific population of gray whales, summering off Siberia and wintering in the breeding grounds off Korea and Japan, but during the past century this population was all but eliminated by Japanese and Korean whalers.) Extrapolating from comparable Pacific data, we can assume that during summer the Atlantic gray whales fed in deep, cold northern waters and then, with the coming of autumn, headed south, probably to Spain, France, or England on one side of the Atlantic or America’s eastern seaboard on the other. In protected bays, the cows most likely would have delivered their calves and become impregnated prior to the northward journey in the spring.

More suggestive historical accounts also exist. For example, as James Mead and Edward Mitchell point out in their 1984 study of the Atlantic gray whale, there are the orders the directors of the Muscovy Company gave to Thomas Edge in 1611. These instructions include descriptions of whales Edge might look for, including one, the Otta sotta, described as being the same colour as the Trumpa [sperm whale] having finnes in his mouth all white but not above a yard long, being thicker than the Trumpa but not so long. He yeeldes the best oyle but not above 30 hogs’ heads. And in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for 1725, Paul Dudley described the scrag whale, with characteristics applicable to no other species but the gray whale: The Scrag whale is near a-kin to the Fin-back, but instead of a Fin on his Back, the Ridge of the After part of his Back is scragged with a half Dozen Knobs or Knuckles; he is nearest the right Whale in Figure and for Quantity of Oil; his bone is white but won’t split.

GRAY WHALE (Eschrichtius robustus)

The most thorough account of the Atlantic gray whale in the historical record is Ole Lindquist’s "The North Atlantic Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus ): An Historical Outline Based on Icelandic, Danish-Icelandic, English and Swedish Sources Dating from ca 1000 A.D. to 1792, published in 2000. The author reads Icelandic, Danish, and Swedish and therefore found many more sources than those of us who relied upon earlier, mostly English-language, authors. One such source is a 1657 work by Thomas Bartholin, a University of Copenhagen professor, called Record of the Fishes of Iceland," which contains this description:

The fifteenth type is the sandlaegja. It is twenty or nearly thirty ells long and lies quietly in the sand. It takes the greatest possible pleasure in sand and greedily seeks out the tiny little fish which are abundant there. It is equipped with horny plates, and although it is eaten by humans, it does not have a pleasant taste, nor is it particularly fat. It is difficult to kill and dies slowly as seals do. It is happy to rest on land. If one comes upon it in the sand, one cannot get near it because it throws up the surrounding sand and moves vigorously in an extraordinary way. But once the force of the waves had driven it into the shallows and it has been run through in several places by spears, it lies dead.

An Icelander named Theodor Thorlacius (1637–1697), bishop of Skáholt, wrote of the Sandlaegja in 1666: It takes its name from the sand in which it loves to lie, because it is generally seen on the shore. All these have [baleen] but lack teeth. Its flesh is very beneficial to health and perfectly suitable for eating. In 1706, another Icelander, Thormod Torfaeus, wrote Groenlandica anttiqua, in which he described the Sandlaegja thus: They have a large tongue and taste good, something they have in common with all those endowed with gills. Their fat is more easily melted than those of the lean ones. These descriptions, Lindquist remarks, reflect the Icelanders’ knowledge of gray whales as it was around 1650.

Especially in the lagoons of Baja California, Pacific gray whales inhabit fairly shallow waters, and they have been known to strand themselves on beaches or sandbars, but no living whale habitually comes ashore. To do so would mean almost certain death, for whales are ill equipped to move on land, and a whale on the beach in the sun is a whale that cooks in its own blubber insulation. It is therefore curious to read the Icelanders’ descriptions of the habits of the Sandlaegja, almost every one of which alludes to the whale’s habit of lying in the sun like a seal. Lindquist mentions Swedish clergyman Olaus Magnus (1490–1557), who wrote of a whale clearly distinguishable from the walrus, which comes on to the beach in sunshine where it sleeps soundly like the seal and which people frequently manage to capture by tying it with ropes. Lindquist wrote that the only cetacean that has a habit like that is the gray whale, but even if the Atlantic version regularly came ashore, as the Icelanders said it did, its Pacific counterpart does not engage in such self-destructive behavior.

In Sea of Slaughter, an impassioned condemnation (written in 1984) of humankind’s ecological excesses in the North Atlantic Ocean, Farley Mowat gives us a most dramatic version of the disappearance of the gray whale, which he calls Otta sotta. Something, or some groups of hunters, eliminated the Atlantic gray whale, but Mowat’s hard evidence is thin and hard to track down. In his view, at least, the Otta sotta was the favorite prey of the Basque whalers until they exterminated it, relegated it to historical oblivion. The more cautious Ole Lindquist concludes that

the North Atlantic gray whale was hunted primarily by coastal inhabitants (a) around the North Sea and the English Channel, from prehistoric times at least into the high Middle Ages; (b) in Iceland, from about 900 A.D. until about 1730; and (c) in New England by European settlers from the mid 17th century until about the same time, possibly also by Indians there; secondly that it was caught by Basques in the latter half of the 16th century and in the early 17th century.

We have no way of knowing whether the Basques and the Icelanders by themselves hunted the Atlantic gray whale to extinction. Its numbers might have been low before the first Basque chaloup was launched. We do know that these very whalers wreaked havoc on the right whale populations of the Bay of Biscay and then headed across the North Atlantic, where they did the same thing. Yet for all this killing, the right whale is not extinct. During the past two centuries, it appeared for all the world as if the idea were to kill all the whales, but despite our massive, concentrated efforts, we failed to eliminate a single great whale species. If industrial whaling could not eliminate any species of whale, how could seventeenth-century open-boat whalers armed with hand-thrown harpoons have accomplished what the diesel-powered catcher boats armed with exploding harpoons could not? It would have been an extraordinary accomplishment for the early hunters to kill all the Atlantic gray whales, but even if they didn’t, they could have so stressed the population that it became vulnerable to other deadly forces, such as disease or climate change. To imperil (or even eliminate) a species, we don’t have to administer the final coup de grâce ourselves.

There is no more poignant example of the agonizing inadequacy of humankind’s approach to marine mammals than the disappearance of Steller’s sea cow. When Commander Vitus Bering’s ship St. Peter was wrecked on a remote western Aleutian island in 1741, the surviving crew members found there, in addition to bewhiskered sea otters, immense sea cows, which were subsequently named for Georg Wilhelm Steller, the naturalist on the voyage. Bering died on the island, but Steller survived and reported the existence of fur seals, sea otters, and the sea lions that now bear his name. Returning sealers killed the huge, slow-moving, oil-rich manatees with such fervor that there were none left by 1768.

We have entered an era in which the lesson of the sea cows has been ignored, usually in the name of short-term profits. Whalers, fishermen, and sealers have systematically destroyed the fisheries that sustained them and have then been surprised that they could not pass on their legacy to those who followed. Gone are the days when cod fishermen on the Grand Banks, off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland—once the world’s richest neighborhood for Gadus morhua—could lower a basket on a rope and bring it up filled with wriggling cod. Only recently have biologists come to understand the intricacies of fish breeding, recruitment, and migration, and for many species the revelations have come too late.

So many of the inhabitants of the oceans have been depleted—fishes, sharks, whales, dolphins—but so have many creatures that spend only a part of their lives in the water yet depend on the oceans for their very existence. The semiaquatic seals and sea lions feed and travel in the water but come out to breed and give birth, as does the sea otter. Perched as he is at the pinnacle of the food pyramid, Homo sapiens has made a career of eliminating those on the lower tiers. Even the most powerful of the ocean’s predators—the sharks, tunas, billfishes, whales, and dolphins—have fallen before the fishers’ and hunters’ relentless determination to wrest a living from the sea’s bounty. Some of these creatures were hunted for food, some for fur, some for oil. Some species of aquatic birds died by the thousands because they were trapped in nets meant for fishes, and some, like the flightless great auk, were hunted for food and clubbed out of existence. Our ability to affect the life and death of sea creatures—the subject of this book—acutely underscores our responsibility to the creatures that share our planet. In that sense—and only in that sense—is it our planet.

We are stranded on shore, watching as the bountiful sea life disappears before our uncomprehending eyes. For many species, what we do—or don’t do—in the coming years will make the difference between existence and extinction. In some cases, it is too late to do anything; the sea cows, great auks, Labrador ducks, and Caribbean monk seals are gone, probably to be followed into the black hole of extinction by barndoor skates, thorn-back rays, Patagonian toothfish, Chinese river dolphins, Ganges River dolphins, and the little Gulf of California porpoises known as vaquitas. Weep for them—and listen to the words of William Beebe: The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.




Abundant signs of the biosphere’s limited resilience exist all around. The

oceanic fish catch now yields $7.5 billion to the U.S. economy and $82

billion worldwide. But it will not grow further, simply because the

amount of ocean is fixed and the organisms it can generate is static. As

a result, all of the world’s seventeen oceanic fisheries are at or below

sustainable yield. During the 1990s the annual global catch leveled off at

about 90 million tons. Pressed by ever growing global demand, it can

be expected eventually to drop. Already fisheries of the western North

Atlantic, the Black Sea, and portions of the Caribbean have collapsed.

Aquaculture, or the farming of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, takes up

part of the slack, but at rising environmental cost. This "fin-and-shell

revolution" necessitates the conversion of valuable wetland habitats,

which are nurseries for marine life. To feed the captive populations,

fodder must be diverted from crop production. Thus aquaculture

competes with other human activity for productive land while reducing

natural habitat. What was once free for the taking must now be


—Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, 2002

The marine ecosystem has traditionally been considered safe from human degradation, mostly because of its size and depth. There was just too much of it for our puny efforts to have much of an effect, and the creatures that lived in it seemed infinite in variety and endless in number. John Seabrook noted in a 1994 Harper’s magazine article:

Marine-fishery management has always rested on the assumption that the number of fish in the sea is limitless. Other of our natural resources—timber, bison, land, wild horses—used to be managed in the same way, and each time we neared the end of the resource the philosophy changed. Ocean management has not yet changed, although it has begun to adapt. The ocean is still free, as it has been forever. Traditionally, if you wanted to buy a factory trawler, hire a crew of a hundred men, and go out and catch tens of thousands of fish a day, you didn’t have to pay the government anything for the use of the resource—no rent, no special taxes. In fact, the government would help set you up in business with tax incentives and low interest loans.

At his inaugural address to the International Fisheries Exhibition in London in June 1883, Thomas Huxley spoke of the state of the fisheries. Not even a salmon river could be exhausted, he said, because the men who fished the river were reachable by force of law. That is, they could be restrained by law if the fish population was seen to be threatened. He continued:

Those who have watched the fisheries off the Lofoden Islands on the coast of Norway say that the coming of the cod in January and February is one of the most wonderful sights in the world; that the cod form what is called a ‘cod mountain’ which may occupy a vertical height of from 20 to 30 fathoms—that is to say, 120 to 130 feet, in the sea, and that these shoals of enormous extent keep coming in in great numbers from the westward and southward for a period of something like two months.

On these and other grounds, it seemed to Huxley that this class of fisheries—cod, herring, pilchard, mackerel, &c.—might be regarded as inexhaustible.

In 1961, Hawthorne Daniel and Francis Minot published The Inexhaustible Sea, a book described on the jacket as the exciting story of the sea and its endless resources. But Daniel and Minot hadn’t been reading the newspapers carefully: while they were writing their book, journalists were reporting that the anchovy population off the coast of Peru was crashing. Anchovies (genus Engraulis) and sardines (genera Sardina and Sardinops) are among the most important of all commercially fished species. The California sardine fishery, celebrated by John Steinbeck in his 1945 novel Cannery Row, peaked at 1.5 billion pounds in 1936 but had ceased to exist by 1962. Anchovetas (Engraulis ringens) were so abundant off Peru Current in such vast numbers that they once headed the list of largest commercial catches: more than 12.1 million tons were caught in 1967. But this fishery completely collapsed in 1973 (a result of not only overfishing but also the El Niño of that year), and the anchoveta, once considered the most numerous fish in the world, is now greatly reduced in numbers. And the codfish, responsible for the discovery and early industrial success of New England, is essentially gone, its inexhaustible fishery closed indefinitely.

At four o’clock every morning of the year, the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo opens with five acres crammed with sea life of every description: finfish, sharks, octopuses, squid, sea urchins, shrimp, lobsters, sea cucumbers, seaweed, and some things that appear to defy categorization. By ten o’clock, everything is gone, the market has closed, and workmen are swabbing the wooden floors of the buildings. Every day, it looks as if the fishermen have vacuumed another part of the ocean to fill the market’s stalls with an incredible display of sea life.

The fishermen are fishing as if there were no tomorrow. An article titled Diminishing Returns in the November 1995 issue of National Geographic begins with these words:

The unthinkable has come to pass. The wealth of oceans, once deemed inexhaustible, has proven finite, and fish, once dubbed the poor man’s protein, have become a resource coveted—and fought over—by nations.

Even this is an understatement. The fishing off Japan, the decimation of the California sardine fishery, and the crash of the Peruvian anchoveta population are just a few moments in a process that has been going on for decades at an accelerating pace. Throughout the world’s oceans, food fishes once believed to be immeasurable in number are now recognized as greatly depleted and in some cases almost extinct. A million vessels now fish the world’s oceans, twice as many as there were twenty-five years ago. Are there twice as many fish as before? Hardly.

Close to the precipice of extinction, if not already over the edge, is the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) of Mexican and California waters. It was said to have occurred in densities of as many as 10,000 individuals per hectare less than half a century ago (a hectare equals 2.47 acres). By the early 1970s, ab divers were harvesting these small abalones in substantial quantities because their tender meat made them even more desirable than the larger and tougher pink, red, and green abalones. In 1972, seventy-two tons of white abalone were landed, but after that the catch steadily dwindled; by the early 1990s, the species had virtually disappeared. For almost two years, biologists and divers Gary Davis, Peter Haaker, and Daniel Richards searched areas of suitable habitat that were known to have supported this species, and in that time they managed to find only three live individuals, approximately one per acre. The prognosis for white abalone recovery, wrote Davis and his colleagues in 1996, is poor, even with immediate active intervention. Wild white abalone broodstock needs to be located quickly and protected, and additional broodstock needs to be produced before significant restoration effort can begin. Population recovery without human intervention is highly unlikely, and white abalone extinction appears imminent. By 1999, the picture had not improved, and in an article titled Extinction Risk in the Sea, Callum Roberts and Julie Hawkins listed Haliotis sorenseni among the soon to be missing. The following year, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) made it a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and in May 2001, the white abalone became the first marine invertebrate to receive federal protection as an endangered species.

In the past, fish populations were depleted by the simple but lethal expedient of catching too many of the target species, thus reducing the numbers available for future capture and breeding. The introduction of new fishing technologies in the latter half of the twentieth century changed the nature of the industry. Now fishermen deploy longlines that may be a hundred miles long and hung with thousands of baited hooks, which may be intended to catch a particular kind of fish—marlins and swordfish, for example—but catch everything else too, including thousands of unwanted species of fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and seabirds. Drift nets and gill nets sometimes float unattended for years, killing fish and other ocean wildlife that no one will ever harvest. Bottom trawlers scrape the seafloor clean of every living thing, from bottom-dwelling fishes to corals.

No phase of the industry exemplifies progress better than the tuna fishery. Once upon a time, tuna of various species were commercially caught on hook and line, with men lined up along the rails of the fishing boats dropping unbaited hooks into a frenzy of feeding tuna, which would snap at anything. The hooked tuna were then yanked from the water, high over the shoulders of the fishermen, and dropped onto the deck. Their great weight and strength, wrote Robert Morgan (1955), often make landing by one man with a line impossible . . . and therefore, each hook is operated by two and sometimes three men. In some regions today a similar technique is employed, but the hooks, lines, and jigs are mechanized and there are no fishermen, just a battery of rods bobbing and yanking tuna out of the water and onto the deck.

The biggest change in tuna fishing, however, came with the introduction of the purse seine. Here, a motorboat dispatched from a larger fishing boat encircles a school of tuna with a net, and when the school is completely surrounded, the net, which is closed at the bottom like a colander, is pursed—the lines around the top are pulled together—and everything in the mesh is trapped and hauled aboard. Purse seining revolutionized the tuna fishery, particularly in the eastern tropical Pacific, producing catches that dwarfed all previous efforts. But the expeditious capture of albacore and yellowfin tuna had an unexpected downside: for reasons not clearly understood, herds of spinner and spotter dolphins associated closely with the schools of tuna, and when the nets were pursed, the dolphins were trapped too. The term used for the unintentional capture of species not targeted by the fishery is bycatch, perhaps the most insidious euphemism in the modern fishing lexicon.

Bycatch refers to the unwanted fish hauled in with the nets, species or sizes that are not marketable—young fish, for example, that have not reached breeding age and thus will never mature and propagate. The term also applies to animals other than fish that are caught in the nets, such as seabirds, dolphins, whales, and turtles. Between June and December 1990, U.S. observers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) traveling aboard Japanese ships in the northern Pacific sampled 4 percent of the fleet’s catch. In addition to catching 7.9 million squid (the target species), seventy-four Japanese vessels took in a bycatch that included 82,000 blue sharks, 253,000 tuna, nearly 10,000 salmonids, 30,000 birds, 52 fur seals, 22 sea turtles, 141 porpoises, and 914 dolphins. Many of these animals are air-breathers; entanglement in fishing nets prevents them from surfacing to breathe, and as a consequence they drown. In the Bering Sea, fishers discarded 16 million undersized red king crabs in 1990—more than five times the number of crabs they were able to bring to market.

The most visible of all bycatches, of course, was the hundreds of thousands of dolphins that were trapped and killed in the tuna nets of eastern tropical Pacific fishermen in the 1960s and 1970s, but this was far from the most harmful and wasteful example. For every 10 pounds of Gulf of Mexico shrimp scraped from the sea floor, wrote Sylvia Earle in 1995, 80 to 90 pounds of ‘trash fish’—rays, eels, flounder, butterfish, redfish, batfish, and more, including juveniles of many species—are mangled and discarded, in addition to tons of plants and animals not even considered worth reporting as ‘bycatch,’ i.e., starfish, sand dollars, urchins, crabs, turtle grass, seaweed, sponges, coral, sea hares, sea squirts, polychaete worms, horse conchs, and whatever else constitutes the seafloor communities that are in the path of the nets. In a 1996 discussion of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery, NMFS fishery management specialist Steve Branstetter reported in a similar vein that shrimp constituted 16% of the total catch by weight, other invertebrates 16%, and finfish 68%. The most abundant species in the bycatch were longspined porgy, brown shrimp, croakers, lizardfish, pink shrimp, and butterfish. Juvenile red snappers made up only 0.4 to 0.5 percent of the total catch by weight, but this percentage was calculated to number between 10 million and 35 million individuals annually, which indicates the incredible extent of the bycatch problem in this region.

With reported landings of 154,083 tons in 1999, shrimp is among the most valuable commercial food fisheries in the United States. According to a statistical database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world’s shrimp fisheries hauled in 4,423,673 tons of shrimp and prawns in 1999. If other shrimpers are as efficient as Americans operating in the Gulf of Mexico, that adds as much as 30 million tons—60 billion pounds—of wasted fishes, sharks, rays, turtles, starfishes, sea anenomes, and cephalopods (squid and octopuses) that are bycatch in the shrimp fishery.

Stretching as far as a hundred miles, longlines consist of thousands of baited hooks for tuna, swordfish, and other billfishes. But longlines also kill young tuna, swordfish, and marlins that should be allowed to grow and breed, as well as sharks, birds, and other sea life in large quantities. Swordfish can be caught with harpoons, and tuna can be caught with hook and line, but these older ways require more work and are therefore less cost-effective. And if there was ever an industry based on cost-effectiveness, it is the modern fishery. Often marginal, and even more often unprofitable, modern mechanized fisheries are driven to wring every dollar, yen, or kopeck from the sea before the fish populations crash or before interfering legislators make them follow regulations that might actually protect the stocks of fish.

Longline fishing is an especially powerful threat to almost all of the twenty-four recognized living species and subspecies of albatross. Baited hooks are set from the rear of the fishing vessel, and before these hooks sink to their optimum fishing depths, the albatrosses dive for the still-floating bait, become hooked, and are dragged underwater and drowned. Each year, the Japanese fishing industry alone sets 107 million or more hooks and is responsible for at least 44,000 albatross deaths. Additional losses are caused by fishing fleets from Argentina, North and South Korea, Indonesia, Uruguay, New Zealand, Taiwan, Peru, Brazil, Hawaii, Namibia, and Australia. At least 60,000 albatrosses and other seabirds may be hooked and drowned by longline fishing vessels engaged in the pirate fishery for Patagonian toothfish, which sets anywhere between 50 million and 100 million hooks in the Southern Ocean each year.

Between 1980 and 1986, the southern bluefin tuna fishery may have accounted for an annual mortality of 2–3 percent of adult wandering albatrosses and 14–16 percent of immature birds nesting on South Georgia Island (Croxall et al. 1990), in addition to numerous deaths at the Crozet Islands in the South Indian Ocean. It is estimated that as many as 1,500 Tasmanian shy albatrosses, out of a total breeding population of 12,000, are killed each year on longlines. Long-lining contributes to the observed decreases of other albatross populations as well, including the black-footed and Laysan albatrosses of the Northern Hemisphere, especially in the northern Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea, and the Gulf of Alaska. In recent years, an estimated 4,500 black-footed albatrosses have been killed annually by longline vessels fishing in Hawaiian waters alone. Given the circumpolar distribution of the black-browed albatross and the overlap of its range with fishing efforts, this species may face the greatest threat from fisheries of any albatross. Many of the dead albatrosses (of all species) appear to be inexperienced young birds in their first years of oceanic wandering, which means that the albatrosses lose the young of previous seasons and therefore lose potential breeding adults, leaving a dwindling, aging population. As Carl Safina (2002) pointed out:

At one time, albatrosses survived extermination only by being at sea. Today, most albatrosses are safe only on land—where they spend just 5 percent of their lives. Hunting and killing on land in decades past was certain to miss at least some islands and some nests and some birds. But nowadays, every albatross, no matter how remote its nest, finds numerous opportunities to die on a longline. If it does and it has a chick on the nest when that happens the chick starves.

There is some cause for hope, however. A new device developed by Ed Melvin and others at the Washington Sea Grant Program could substantially reduce the number of albatrosses caught by long-liners. Each long-liner would be required to fly streamers suspended from strings behind the boat that would flutter in the wind and keep the birds from snatching at the baited hooks. In their 2001 report, Melvin and his colleagues commented, In 2000, paired streamer lines virtually eliminated both Laysan albatross and northern fulmar attacks on baited hooks, and completely eliminated the albatross and northern fulmar bycatch. Safina, in his book titled Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival, continues:

The birds are now reasonably secure on their islands, where once they were hunted mercilessly. The main threat now comes from longline fishing, but where longline fishing pressure has softened, some albatross populations have begun to trend upward. For example, Wanderer populations on Crozet and Kerguelen Islands in the Indian Ocean, which had plunged by more than half between 1960 and 1990, are now increasing because many longline boats have moved away from these birds’ main feeding grounds (after depleting the Southern Bluefin Tuna they’d targeted). Antipodes Albatrosses increased from about eight hundred pairs in the late 1960s to over five thousand pairs by the mid-1990s—by far the greatest increase for any great albatross population. The short-tailed has been increasing at 7 percent per year. Full recovery of these species could still require well over a century, and others are in trouble, but the point is this: these birds were in very bad shape, yet things have changed for the better.

Gill nets, still in common use, are submerged walls of netting whose meshes form a noose around the heads and bodies of fish that swim into them. They are used for surface, midwater, or bottom fishing and can be anchored or set adrift; in the latter case, they are referred to as drift nets. (Drift gill nets, a third type, are attached to the vessel at one end, with the other end drifting behind.) When Japan developed monofilament fibers that could be used in open-ocean drift-netting in the mid-1970s, it introduced the most destructive method of fishing ever devised. Large-scale high-seas drift nets were first used in the North Pacific by fleets from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Because of the huge bycatch of marine wildlife in these nets, they have been labeled walls of death; hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, seabirds, sea turtles, sharks, and other nontarget species have been killed by them to date. Free

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    The Empty Ocean makes for compelling (and frightening) reading. We have always looked at the ocean as an inexhaustible resource, but Ellis makes clear we are dangerously close to killing off a number of species, and we have no idea what the consequences will be when they're gone.